BROOKE GLADSTONE: TV inspires so much passion that amateur critics may find that they're talking about it all the time. Take Sarah Bunting and Tara Ariano who first met each other in an internet chat room devoted to Beverly Hills 90210. Soon they were posting their own "wrap ups" --as they were then called, of a new and even more self-consciously terrible show, Dawson's Creek. Eventually, they launched Television Without Pity dot com -- known to strike fear in the hearts of TV producers. The site currently "recaps" 37 shows -- each one updated weekly by a "recapper" assigned to that beat. Sarah Bunting joins me now. Welcome to the show.
SARAH BUNTING: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now for the uninitiated, we should give an example of what a recap actually is. It's--brutal. One might even say pitiless. And this season's Survivor is being recapped by Miss Allie, who clearly loathes a contestant named Rupert. Here's a clip with some recap.
MISS ALLIE: Over at Rupert's gradual descent into madness, he is chopping away at the outside of a coconut or something. [RUPERT MUMBLING] "This is the outside," he snarls to an observing Krista.
RUPERT: It's so much rot and death here.
MISS ALLIE: Or, quite possibly, to some invisible people who you and I and Krista cannot actually see.
RUPERT: Rot...and death.
MISS ALLIE: And he says it with total, absolute, grim seriousness. He really does have a screw loose, no kidding. It's sad and kind of not-that-funny. Okay, it's sad and funny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now Television Without Pity's roster of TV programs is very heavy on reality fare, and it has dramas, and it has no sitcoms. What determines what makes it on to your site to be recapped?
SARAH BUNTING: Well initially we selected a range of shows, most of which were on the WB and would be the kind of teen pap that Dawson's Creek had been when we launched with only one show, but then we were immediately crossed up by the West Wing which we added because we thought --[LAUGHS] Rob Lowe -- come on! [LAUGHTER] In a White House drama? You've got to be kidding. And then it turned out to be this wonderfully-written, critically-acclaimed show that brought masses of people to the site, and at that time we felt that we could expand the mandate to things like HBO's Sunday night dramas on the thought that if people are watching it, surely there are comments to be made, even if they're not derogatory. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:On the site are forums where viewers can post their own responses to the shows and to your recaps. Do you get the sense that they are always in on the joke, as you present it?
SARAH BUNTING: Well, initially, when the site was smaller, there was a sense that everyone understood. But as the site has grown, there are times where arguments over the phrasing of a certain insult on the Real World devolve into these semantically-charged things that you just think to yourself, push back from your desk for a few minutes and go get a diet Coke and just breathe deeply, [LAUGHTER] because it doesn't matter enough to be yelling at other people. But then again, I've, I've done it myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Last year the New York Times magazine featured a very flattering story about your site called The Remote Controllers -- about how Hollywood script writers and producers read and use the information in the recaps to adjust story lines or drop characters that aren't popular and so on. Is that true?
SARAH BUNTING: I really hesitate to over-estimate our effect on story lines, on characters. We've seen some little minor ripples -- like characters being named after recappers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And you've gotten even more direct reaction than that. The Times reporter Marshall Sella recalls that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the drama the West Wing, was so stung by comments on your site he wrote a rebuttal which you posted, and then, says Sella, in a later episode of West Wing "Sorkin depicted internet users" like yourselves, presumably, and I'm quoting the Times here, as "obese shut-ins who lounge around in mu-mus and chain smoke Parliaments."
SARAH BUNTING: Yeah. I don't know where he got that. I smoke Camel lights. [LAUGHTER] We found that delightful. Petty -- but if it was us, and if we had irritated him so extravagantly that he would light out after us in a nationally-broadcast episode, we thought, "Wow, that's fabulous."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Generally you guys seem pretty impervious to charges of nastiness. As it says on your home page, "Spare the snark and spoil the networks."
SARAH BUNTING: Yeah. I guess we are. I think the meanness, at least on my part, comes from this constant optimism that television is going to be good -that it's going to fulfill its potential the way Buffy did for several seasons, the way My So-Called Life did, the way the Sopranos has done -- that you realize it is possible for television to be important and to be a cultural through line. But there is also an element of laziness in a lot of television, and I think people accept that because television is like the red-headed stepchild of the arts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So what do the recaps contribute to the culture do you think? I mean, let's face it -people don't need to read 15 pages about Joe Millionaire.
SARAH BUNTING: I find myself answering questions about our role in the culture and where we fit in, in the feedback loop, and I feel like I should cite Marshall Mcluhan, but I, I don't know where. It really is simple, in the end, that we're just sitting there making fun of these things and, and feeling superior [LAUGHS] about our intellects a lot of times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH BUNTING: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sarah Bunting is one of the founders of Television Without Pity.